A three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that prosecutors have the right to enforce a subpoena against Mazars USA, Trump’s longtime accounting firm, for eight years of tax returns ordered by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
Vance is seeking the returns as part of a criminal investigation into Trump and his family real estate business.
The judgement upheld a lower court ruling earlier in October that rejected Trump’s broad claim of immunity from criminal investigations.
The judges in the most recent ruling specifically said that Trump’s claims of immunity could not stop Vance from ordering a third party, in this case – Trump’s accountants, from handing over the financial documents.
The immunity claimed by the president could also not stop officials from prosecuting him after he leaves office, the ruling said.
It would “exact a heavy toll on our criminal justice system to prohibit a state from even investigating potential crimes committed by him for potential later prosecution,” 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann wrote in the decision.
The ruling, however, did not decide on Trump’s most central claim, that he is immune from being charged with a state crime while in office. That position had one of Trump’s lawyers arguing before the appeals court on October 23 that state authorities would be powerless to act against the president even if he shot someone on the street, unless he were removed from office first.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the president, said Trump will appeal the ruling, sending the case to the Supreme Court, whose 5-4 conservative majority includes two justices appointed by Trump.
The ruling was the latest setback in Trump’s apparent attempt to keep his personal finances private – despite promising during his 2016 White House run that he would disclose the documents, which are also being sought by two congressional committees.
It has become customary in the US for presidential candidates to release their returns, which offer a window into their personal finances and business dealings. Trump is the first president in decades to buck that expectation.
The House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform subpoenaed financial records from Trump’s accountants, Mazars USA, in April as part of an investigation into possible conflicts of interest.
Despite the president’s legal team mounting a robust defence, judges in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in October that the firm must hand over the requested documents, which do not include Trump’s tax returns.
The ruling was the first time a federal court had waded into the debate about how far Congress can go in probing Trump and his business affairs, and marked an important victory for House Democrats.
In July, the House Ways and Means Committee sued the Trump administration over access to the president’s tax returns. The president then counter-sued and the case is still pending.
In New York, Trump sued to prevent Deutsche Bank and Capital One from complying with House subpoenas for banking and financial records in late April. A judge ruled against him, and Trump also appealed.
Manhattan District Attorney Vance’s investigation is looking into payments made to buy the silence of two women, adult film star Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal, who claim they had affairs with the president before the 2016 presidential election. Trump has denied the claims.
Trump’s lawyers have said the investigation by Vance, a Democrat, is politically motivated.
US Justice Department lawyers in Washington, DC, also urged the 2nd Circuit to reverse the findings of the lower court, saying Vance’s probe was too broad, and he must prove “particularised need” for the records before they are released to a grand jury.
Vance’s investigation comes as the president faces impeachment hearings initiated by House Democrats after he pushed Ukraine’s leader to investigate a gas company linked to the son of the president’s political rival, Joe Biden.